Presidential Trouble


Garrett Epps has a very interesting article in The Atlantic making the case that the presidency is simply a poorly designed office as currently conceived. I really recommend that you read the piece. It’s main flaw, I think, is that it partakes in the brand of solipsism that’s all-too-common in the American media. When the Founding Fathers put the constitution together, they made their best effort at canvassing the historical experience of republican governments in finding models and cautionary tales about what to do. But they didn’t have all that many examples to consider. These days, we can do better. There are lots of republics and constitutional monarchies to survey. And my view is that surveying them reveals that pure parliamentary systems (UK, Netherlands, Germany) with an essentially symbolic head of state are superior to presidential (US, Mexico) or semi-presidential (France, Russia, Afghanistan) ones.

Needless to say, though, that’s not very practical. Epps offers, instead, some incremental proposals for reform. One—the biggest no-brainer of the bunch—is to change the electoral system. Another provocative thought is that we ought to formally divide the execute. An odd feature of the US political regime is that at the level of state government we (except for New Jersey) tend to divide executive authority among multiple independently elected officials even though it’s not especially plausible that the governor of North Dakota is going to seize dictatorial authority. But when it comes to the federal government, where abuse of power is a very real fear, we have only one elected officer. Epps suggests establishing the Attorney-General as an independent figure, elected to four-year terms during the off-cycle years—2010, 2014, 2018, etc. Since this resembles the way most states (and, indeed, many counties) work it might go down smoother as a proposal than would a shift to a Euro-style parliamentarism.

Not, of course, that I have any real hope that any of this will be done. The American public and political class are both strangely complacent about institutional issues. There’s a tendency to become really unhappy about political outcomes and processes, but to give almost no thought to the idea that changing the rules that govern our institutions might be a potent way to relieve this unhappiness. Instead, we believe that a change of personnel will eliminate our unease—that George W. Bush will “change the tone” or Barack Obama will restore hope. Obviously, it really does matter a great deal who occupies our public offices. But on another level, if you want to change things you do need to look at the system in which people are operating.